Columns Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

Yes, Donald, there is a Santa Claus

Topiary trees line the East colonnade at the White House in Washington on Nov. 26, 2018. Christmas has arrived at the White House. First lady Melania Trump unveiled the 2018 White House holiday decor on Monday. She designed the decor, which features a theme of "American Treasures." (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Call him the Grinch in Chief.

Or, the Killjoy of the Free World.

In a Christmas Eve call, Trump asked a 7-year-old named Collman Lloyd whether the child still believes in Santa Claus.
“Are you still a believer in Santa? Because at 7, it’s marginal, right?” Trump asked Collman.
We do not know how young Collman reacted to the President’s analysis of the possibility of believing in Santa Claus. I suspect that he might have needed to ask an adult what “marginal” means.
Let’s dig down a little deeper, and ask ourselves: Why does belief in Santa Claus matter?
First: apparently, President Trump was right. Studies show that many children start to abandon their belief in Santa Claus right around the age of seven. According to the New York Times: “That range has been largely consistent for decades; a 1978 study said that 85 percent of 5-year-olds believed, while just 25 percent of 8-year-olds kept the faith.” So, yes: children outgrow the belief in Santa Claus.
Second: this is unfortunate, because “belief” in the unseen and the imaginary is a standard part of religious faith.
Take Judaism, for example. On Shabbat, I devote a certain piece of the worship experience to welcoming unseen/imaginary “friends” into the sanctuary (leaving aside, for the moment, the snark of many atheists who suggest that God is the Ultimate Imaginary Friend).
Who gets the Shabbat invitation?
  • The Shabbat bride.That invitation comes in the form of the well-known Shabbat hymn, Lekha Dodi “Beloved, come”).  This is a sixteenth century text, from Safed, written by Shlomo Alkabetz. There are probably more than a thousand melodies to this song, and at least as many interpretations. The Jewish mystics of old imagined that Shabbat was a beautiful bride (or a queen), and that it was the duty of every Jew to welcome her. We imagine her presence so strongly that we actually rise for her, imagining that she is entering the sanctuary itself.
  • The Shabbat angels. Once we welcome the Shabbat bride, we turn our attention to the Shabbat angels, through the singing of Shalom Aleichem. This is based on the Talmudic legend — that a good angel and a bad angel accompany a person home from synagogue on the eve of Shabbat. If the table is set, and ready for the joy of Shabbat, the good angel says, “May it always be this way,” and the bad angel must say “amen” If the table isn’t set, the bad angel says, “May it always be this way,” and the good angel must say “amen.”
  • And then, at the end of Shabbat, Elijah the prophet. You would need a few hours to totally understand the role of Elijah in Jewish folklore. The short form: whenever Jews encounter a moment that is pregnant with possibility, and ripe for redemption, Elijah has a way of “showing up.” That happens at the end of the Sabbath; towards the end of the Passover Seder, at which a special cup is set aside for him; and at every bris ceremony, where a special chair is set aside for him.

So, this is what I would have wanted President Trump to know.

  1. Kids need invisible friends, heroes, and gift-bringers, whether Santa or the Tooth Fairy. Is that belief “marginal?” Yes — from a rational point of view. Is there anything wrong with it? No. There is everything right with that.
  2. There is something sad about chipping away at those old mythologies. We lose something powerful in the process — when, in the words of my friend, author Thane Rosenbaum, we choose to make “Elijah visible.” For a man who all too often caters to the irrational, there was something uber-rational and unnecessarily cruel in telling a child that Santa Claus might not really exist. Religion needs dreams and visions. So, by the way, do nations.
  3. It’s not just kids. The religious quest is always involved in spirits, unseen presences, invisible people. Check out Jacob Neusner’s excellent book, The Enchantments of Judaism. It’s not just Santa Claus, or the Sabbath Bride, or Elijah. You don’t need to go that far back. Go to Auschwitz, or any concentration camp — and you will experience unseen presences. They are “real.”

Having said that, what if you don’t “really” “believe” in those mythic strangers who come to visit?

Join the club. Most people, at least at a certain age, give those notions a bit of a wink.

But, let’s just say that you were reluctant to abandon those fanciful ideas. Could you re-interpret them?

Totally.

  • Santa Claus winds up being not a good-natured fat man who lives at the North Pole and hangs out with elves and reindeer. Rather, he becomes the imaginary embodiment of the spirit of generosity that allows people to think of others, and to go beyond themselves.
  • The Shabbat Bride and the Shabbat angels wind up being not a beautiful bride and mysterious figures who magically show up in every synagogue on a Friday evening. Rather, they become the imaginary embodiments of the spirit of Shabbat. That spirit of sacred rest, of detachment from having and owning, that attachment to texts, songs, stories, and relationships — haven’t you noticed how imperiled that idea is? It takes work to welcome that idea, and to internalize it. But, it is worth it.
  • Elijah the prophet winds up being not an ancient Judean prophet. Rather, he becomes the spirit of prophetic protest that is necessary in our world, and in faith. He comes at the end of Shabbat to remind us that Shabbat peace is only imaginary, that it needs us to make it a reality. He comes towards the end of the Passover seder to remind us that, for too many, freedom is still elusive. He attends the bris ceremony (and at naming ceremonies for girls as well) to remind us that one of our greatest tasks in child-rearing is to encourage our children to question power and to take care of the vulnerable — which is exactly what Elijah did, both in the Bible and in later legends.

True people of faith not only see what is in front of their eyes. They imagine what is not yet in front of their eyes. Some would say that those are imaginary people; some would say that those are imaginary ideals.

As we prepare to enter 2019, ask yourself: What are you choosing to see? And what do you still need to see?

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.

147 Comments

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  • Still not sure if those are Christmas decorations or an attempt to summon The Great Cthulhu and begin his reign of blood.

  • KUDOS brother Jeffrey Salkin! For declaring, “Unseen/imaginary ‘friends’ … God [being] the Ultimate Imaginary Friend … invisible friends, heroes, and gift-bringers … spirits, unseen presences, invisible people … mythic strangers” – “They are ‘real.'”

    YES THEY ARE.

  • Obviously the editorial ‘Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus’ was unfamiliar material to the President unless he simply decided that it was no longer relevant and to replace it with simply being marginal

  • Honestly, I’d be a little careful with the “imaginary friends” angle.

    First, it’s entirely healthy for adults to say the truth about Santa to their kids at an appropriate young age. It’s just the truth, and Trump is correct.

    But secondly, some imaginary friends are real — but not healthy. I recently saw a couple Youtube videos in which some kids were asked to draw their imaginary friends and briefly describe them.They were worse than “Night Gallery”, folks! Those “friends” got plans for those kids.

    So, people really gotta be careful about inviting “unseen / imaginary friends” into the worship service, or into one’s own life, or into a child’s life. Better check them unseen / imaginary ID cards first !!!

  • Yes, we have a president who is entirely incapable of handling a simple PR moment. (See also France 11/11/2018)

  • I think that’s up to the kid’s parents, not Donald Trump. Compare Trump to Obama who wore a Santa hat to visit Children at Washington DC’s chiidren’s hospital and give out presents.

  • You could use a Buddhist word and call it a visualization when referring to re-imagined myths.

    An Elementary School teacher took the Jewish children aside and told them not to tell their Christian friends that Santa didn’t exist. I think that’s taking it too far.

  • I’m sure any JW parents who were at the children’s hospital that day, were utterly thrilled with a Prez in a Santa hat (they consider the Santa symbol to be both pagan and falsehood, plus they don’t do Christmas) openly advertising a “pagan holiday” to their JW kids.

    “But Obama meant well!” some would reply. Well, that’s true…and it’s true for President Trump as well. At least neither Prez endorses and invites imaginary friends to the party.

  • And to end the discussion with again some reality via The Great Kibosh of All Religions:

    Putting the kibosh on all religion in less than ten seconds: Priceless !!!

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated/reborn Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    • A constant cycle of reincarnation until enlightenment is reached and belief that various beings (angels?, tinkerbells? etc) exist that we, as mortals, cannot comprehend makes for a no on Sikhism.

    Added details available upon written request.

    A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

    e.g. Taoism

    “The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother’s womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. “

  • Thanks for a thoughtful piece. Some of the comments below show there are folk that don’t understand the concept of metaphor.

    What you describe is the way the Resurrection concept in Christianity can be understood, as metaphor for finding the essence of an idea within ones self. Jesus wasn’t resurrected literally and bodily but the essence of his character, of goodness, of compassion, of forgiveness was brought to life within the hearts and minds of some of his followers and were displayed to the world in their day to day words and actions–how they treated other people, other living things–plants, animals, our planet, and how they treat themselves.

    Just as you describe understanding Santa as metaphor. Something many including Trump and some who comment here will never grasp. It is all about finding the essence of the idea represented by a symbol or told in a story within ones self.

  • “Jesus wasn’t resurrected literally and bodily but the essence of his character, of goodness, of compassion, of forgiveness was brought to life within the hearts and minds of some of his followers and were displayed to the world in their day to day words and actions–how they treated other people, other living things–plants, animals, our planet, and how they treat themselves.”

    https://academicguides.waldenu.edu/writingcenter/grammar/runonsentences

    On the plus side, you managed to cut a complex theological and religious concept down to a size you can handle.

  • Surprise but this made international news coverage. The Donald tends, unfortunately, to be a regular feature. The world elsewhere no doubt will be relieved when this man no longer is in power.

  • He seems to be doing reasonably well in the USA in terms of popularity in the states which he carried in 2016.

    Your mileage in the Great White North may vary.

  • Vlad: hey Orange1 your economy tanking so glad you support socialist Russiamerica future. Thanks also for exit Syria. Me and buddy Hafez greatful thanks to you and we three do streaming views in Moscow trump tower together again soon yes?

    Donald TRump: Pootie Baby, getting really hot over here on me with Mueller going to impeach my ass. I need trip to Moscow and be safe there.

    Vlad: No problem DonnieBoy. We make apartment in Siberia for you next to Eddie Snowden and big babushkas keep you warm and your small hands busy yes and Mark Connelly service you. I handle Melanoma divorce for you and no problem Russia-style with my big bare chest on hers.

  • Donald TRump: Pootie Baby, getting really hot over here on me with Mueller going to impeach my ass. I need trip to Moscow and be safe there.

    Vlad: DonnieBoy. We make apartment in Siberia for you next to Eddie Snowden and big babushkas keep you warm and your small hands busy and Mark Connelly service you yes. I handle Melanoma divorce for you and no problem Russia-style with my big bare chest on hers.

  • Donald TRump: Pootie Baby my love, getting really hot over here on me with Mueller going to impeach my ass. I need trip to Moscow and be safe there.

    Vlad: No problem DonnieBoy. We make apartment in Siberia for you next to Eddie Snowden and big babushkas keep you warm and your small hands busy yes and Mark Connelly service you as usual. I handle Melanoma divorce for you and no problem Russia-style with my big bare chest on hers.

  • Always there to try to polish the dookies left by our incompetent president. There really isn’t a point where you have ever considered, “is this a bit much”?”

  • Mythology has its uses and its limits. This is an article that ponders the usefulness of mythology.

  • If Trump decides to start posting like your pal Mr. Vladonald there, I sincerely promise I will complain about it.

  • That is certainly a mantra, one repeated by Rabbi Salkin, Mark Silk, and others at RNS.

    I don’t believe there is any more evidence “He only cares about himself” than there was for Obama, Kennedy, Johnson, Clinton, and a number of other Presidents.

    He certainly seems to care for Israel more than Obama did.

  • He does on a regular basis. He tweets something stupid and news media jumps.

    His little gaffe in Iraq now has their government ordering US troops out.

  • The word “metaphor” is as missing, absent & nonexistent in Jeffrey Salkin’s “thoughtful piece”, as your ASHiest “understanding [of] Santa … the Resurrection concept in Christianity … [and] Susan Humphreys” herself! Get lost, stay lost (“metaphor[ically]” speaking, of course), I don’t care.

  • Obviously you do care otherwise you would simply have ignored what I wrote! As I said there are folks that simply don’t understand concepts such as metaphors and symbolism! You appear to be one.

  • Jeffrey Salkin is the writer, not you. That he never mentions “metaphors” at all, I “do care”! That you troll with “metaphors”, who cares! Period.

  • As in synthetic?
    Or as in artificial intelligence?
    How does EVERYONE know that you aren’t a fake?
    Who calls themselves Mrs. anyway?

  • Trump is evil. He has always been. Some people are just born “wrong”. I think Trump is one of those people. There is no hope for them. The world would be better off with these types of people!

  • Trump doesn’t know how to “mean well”. Trump is worse than an actual anti-Christ. Trump is America’s Hitler, who was also elected, hated immigrants, hated unions, hated LGBTQ, hated socialists, hated anyone not like himself….. etc

  • Israel never suffered when Obama was president, IN FACT, Jews in the USA are victims of hate crimes MORE now that Trump is president, who won’t even call-out NAZI’s. You should stop watch FOX and stop supporting Russia and start loving the USA, which Trump doesn’t!

  • I could not take seriously ANYONE who enjoys today’s late night comedy. My husband (a lover of classic SNL) and I have tried it exactly twice, for about two minutes each time, before we had to turn it off in complete disgust.

  • So, what you’re now arguing is that there is a CHANCE that the President is an atheist.

    Of course there is a chance that he is not.

  • No, it is not.

    Fact is there’s nothing he’s done that lots of Christians, Jews, Latter-day Saints, and a plethora more wouldn’t.

    Your dislike for the guy doesn’t rise to the level of a proof, an argument, or anything beyond a personal opinion.

  • You’re in a permanent Do Loop.

    Name one thing Trump has done that lots of Christians, Jews, Latter-day Saints, and a plethora more wouldn’t.

    That wraps it up.

  • It’s sad you don’t have the intellectual horsepower to realize that if Trump did something that might be done by an atheist, a Christian, a Jew, a Latter-day Saint, or some other affiliated or non-affiliated person, all you have “proven” is that various people do things, and so does the President … speaking of “flail about” of course.

  • Funny hadn’t even considered that as late night comedy and nothing I would watch. But others make a hay day of the Tweets and other public media in making commentaries about the current political square.. Not just Trump or the White House to be fair but general socio/political commentary. Stephen Colbert sometimes does so from an underlying faith based perspective. Certainly Hilary was a target of commentary before and pre 2916 saw a greater array of issues covered. But regrettably, there is a president in office who seems to provide way too much fodder for this forum. Easy pickings I guess. But for Trump supporters, probably nothing they would find entertainment value in.

  • Trump has done nothing that one or more atheists, Christians, Jews, Latter-day Saints, etc, etc, etc wouldn’t.

    Time to come in out of the rain; you’ve barked up that wrong tree long enough you ought to be smart enough to knock it off.

  • It was long before Trump, and it was the rank vulgarity that was the turn off. Not just one but both times we happened to tune in the joke of the moment was about, to put it a bit more politely than Rosie O’Donnell did, feminine odor. It said a lot to me about the caliber of the audience.

  • Not to mention that he or his handlers broke classified information, revealed that Seal Team 5 was in Iraq, where and then revealed their faces to the world so everyone now knows who they are. The stupidest Commander in Chief you lot have ever had. Puts his own troops in danger.

  • I completely disagree.

    As a politician, not unlike Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Charles Schumer he made reference to negative material about a political opponent, and more than once.

    Endorsement and belief are completely different matters.

    Or do you believe that Nancy Pelosi honestly believes American immigration personnel killed two minor children of illegal immigrants?

  • Not the first time he has endangered people with PR opportunities.

    Such as when he accidentally burned Israel’s man inside ISIS while trying to impress the Russian ambassador in 2017.

  • No obviously your age and as I said itwas. NOW STOP L​YING ABOUT MY WORDS YOU HEATHEN. JESUS WILL SURELY BEAT YOU AND BURN YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • No obviously you are being juvenile. NOW STOP L​YING ABOUT MY WORDS YOU HEATHEN. JESUS WILL SURELY BEAT YOU AND BURN YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • No your wrong as the BIBLE says Jesus will BURN you eternally for not REPENTING of your LIES!!!!!

  • Yes I am Jane but Mrs. Nesbitt to you and you are a LI​AR and will be PUNISHED by God for your lies forever!!!

  • No your wrong as the BIBLE says Jesus will BURN you eternally for not REPENTING of your LIES about what I said!!!!!

  • No your BAD and Jesus will BURN you eternally for not REPENTING of your LIES about what I said.

    REPENT OR BURN FOR YOUR LIES YOU HEATHEN!!!!

  • No its your BAD and Jesus will BURN you eternally for not REPENTING of your LIES about what I said.

    REPENT OR BURN FOR YOUR LIES YOU HEATHEN!!!!

  • No your BAD and Jesus will BURN you eternally for not REPENTING of your LIES about what I said.

    REPENT OR BURN FOR YOUR LIES YOU HEATHEN!!

  • Well, Mark Connelly got nuked earlier this evening.

    Fortunately that eventuality was prepared for.

    Bob Arnzen

  • Well, Mark Connelly got nuked earlier this evening.

    Fortunately that eventuality was prepared for..

    Bob Arnzen

  • Well, Mark Connelly was nuked earlier this evening.

    Fortunately that eventuality was prepared for…

    Bob Arnzen